On this day we make a time for remembering. One of the beliefs which unifies the pagan festival of Samhain and Día de los Muertos is the idea that at this time, the spirit of our loved ones return to us. Families build altars in their homes to family members, and with candles, favourite foods, water, pictures, and so, remember them fondly, and so symbolically welcome their spirit back into their homes. In bringing stories to mind, giving our attention to their memories, they feel close again. There are many traditions around the world which venerate the dead, and this Latin American, Mexican festival, the day of the dead, is just one of them. Stretching back to the Aztecs makes it a tradition which goes back over 3000 years. These altars with water on them, candles, food, stamped paper designs, represent the mythological elements of fire, earth, air, and water: the primal materials of life. In this way, the primal elements of life are used to celebrate the dead. They bring to mind that agricultural imagery, of sowing and reaping, the cycle of life and death. The body that is put in the earth, the earth that brings forth plants, new life from death. Tradition operates in a similar way; cultural carcasses from which new life springs. In the annual or even weekly repetition of words and movement, suddenly a greater depth is encountered, the words take on a new freshness and dynamism which has more depth and meaning than new words could possibly express. It’s as if the words, the tradition, is already within us, in the bones of humanity. It is timeless.
Día de los Muertos is a day which brings us back to our ancestors. It allows us to grieve their passing, and celebrate their lives. One could easily criticise western society as being pretty bad at the whole grieving process. Society at best allows someone a few weeks, maybe a month, and then expects them to resume life as if nothing really happened. Of course this undermines the other fact of grieving that we all know, that we all do it differently, and that one of the most important aspects of the grieving process is to talk often of our loss. The day of the dead creates a framework, a structure around doing something we rarely do, talking of those loved ones who have died. There is a lot of value to all this. Simply remembering is valuable. By their example we are encouraged to be kinder, forgive more. I think when we reflect on the impact certain people have had on our lives, the way they have shaped the person we have become, it opens us to realise that the love we express today, the small kindnesses, the compassion, and charity, and warmth, are in no way simply expressions of the moment, they go on, they are carried well beyond our lives. Great acts of love ripple on from generation to generation. This encourages greater intentionality; everything is carried on with us. This traditional cultural institution then intuitively taps into something that we in the west have repressed – the dead don’t die, they live on in those they leave behind. Ultimately this festival is about celebrating life, reminding us of our own mortality, and thus the responsibility to foster a legacy of love which endures beyond us. The dead help remind us what is most important in this world.
There is a Buddhist parable which captures this idea too – Sogen’s One Drop of Water. We are like single drops of water and when we align with the dharma, our acts of compassion and love become part of one overall flow of compassion and love. And this idea is closely mirrored in the Christian tradition too: Jesus acts in the way of love, and his spirit continues on in us, if we continue on expressing the love of Jesus. In this way that which is love, and thus of Jesus, endures, and that which is not love, that which is outside of the Way, does not endure. And in this sense Jesus is alive, and within us. We come to places of worship for many reasons. We are drawn to exploring life’s mysteries. We are born. What do we do with this thing called life? And this full stop before us, death, what are we to make of you? Our liberal faith provides many doors and approaches to holding these concrete realities in our mind – may we ever delve deeper into the mysteries of life and death alike. May the stories and mythologies we gather around ever deepen the journey, ever enrich the way before us.